The San Francisco Bay Area has long enjoyed a reputation for experimental behavior on the part of its intellectuals—a confusion of art and life, if you will. But unlike Paris, Berlin, and Leningrad in the Twenties, or New York in the Forties, San Francisco has been much less a laboratory of the avant-garde than a cheering section. No significant intellectual movement has begun here; the “Beat” excitement of the Fifties proved in large part barren, having produced writers who were, in the end, undistinguished when not downright banal. Even the stars of the Beats—Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg—can now be seen to have owed most of their output to the New York environment from which they sprang. The sad truth seems to be that the only achievement to be properly claimed by a tradition of “San Francisco writers”—as opposed to writers who happen to live in San Francisco—is the...


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